India confronts a world of paradoxes. There is a reassertion of nationalist sentiment in countries across the globe, accompanied by sharpening political and social polarisation. This contradicts the reality of the increasingly globalised and densely interconnected world we inhabit today. Our destinies as countries and peoples are more intertwined, and the cross-border and cross-domain challenges we confront today are more numerous and salient than at any time in human history. This unfolding and inescapable reality is the result of the rapid technological changes which pervade our lives. The globalisation of our economies is a consequence of this change. The new reality compels collaborative responses from the international community and institutions to enable them to deal effectively with contemporary challenges. And yet we seem to be regressing into an outdated frame of reference where the competitive impulses of nation-states continue to dominate.
The nation-state endures and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. However, the concept of national sovereignty, which is its defining characteristic, is increasingly conditioned, and indeed constrained by the reality that the line between domestic and external is now hopelessly blurred. The Indian economy is impacted by developments far away from our shores. Our Sensex responds as much to the movements of the New York Stock Exchange as it does to developments within our borders. A pandemic may break out in a remote corner of Africa, but may spread quickly across the globe. Climate change is a global phenomenon, and impacts countries irrespective of their contribution to the atmospheric stock of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming. Natural and man-made disasters frequently range across national borders. These, and many other challenges can only be addressed through collaborative interventions on a global scale, and this demands the transcending of nationalist predilections and embracing a spirit of internationalism. It is evident that a polity which seeks political gain through polarising society domestically cannot at the same time pursue a foreign policy which embraces the logic of internationalism. Looking for the anti-national and anti-patriotic at home inevitably leads to the search for enemies abroad.
In India, we have a prime minister who has mastered the use of new social media and wishes to lift India into the digital age. And yet he is also a leader who is not averse to kindling the flames of nationalism or acquiescing in the politics of polarisation. The digital age requires a different, more inclusive sensibility, both at home and abroad.
It is an undeniable fact that the pace of technological advance has accelerated beyond the capacity of the human psyche and social mores to adapt. The search for familiar anchors is understandable. However, “globalisation is a bell that cannot be unrung”. We are no longer in a world where countries can cocoon themselves and survive; nor can the pursuit of domestic interests prevail over external engagement. External engagement may well be indispensable to achieving domestic objectives, precisely because of the increased salience of issues cutting across national boundaries. India’s efforts to deal with climate change will not succeed unless the rest of the world collaborates in unison to reduce and eliminate carbon emissions. Even if our emissions became zero tomorrow, climate change would continue to affect us if other countries do not pitch in.
And yet, international institutions and processes to enable the governance of the newer and expanding cross-national domains not only lag behind, but their very rationale is under attack. There is something of a worldwide backlash against globalisation, and a pervasive yearning for a past with familiar political, social and cultural anchors. This is a quixotic endeavour because the drivers of cross-border challenges are technological and economic, and are now so deeply embedded in our lives as individuals and communities that they cannot be unravelled. It is trying to put the genie back in the bottle. The ecological, economic and strategic challenges of the new millennium can only be tackled through governance at the international scale. And that demands a spirit of internationalism which can temper and transcend the nationalist urges, which, unchecked, may threaten human survival itself.
As the US and the West progressively lose the benefits which have been anchored in Western ascendancy of institutions and processes of international governance, there is a relapse into nationalism and the attempted revival of an imagined past. We are confronted with an elemental dilemma: precisely at a time in the history of mankind when we need much stronger and more effective international institutions and processes to deal with a completely new set of challenges, the balance between nationalism and internationalism has tilted heavily in the nationalist direction. This is happening across the world, and there is a fragmentation of the global space accompanied by a polarisation of attitudes in country after country. The yearning for national control, the harking back to an imagined historical, social and cultural identity such as we have seen in the Brexit vote in the UK, and the more recent elections in the US, will inevitably end in frustrated expectations. For the West, globalisation was embraced as long as it reinforced Western ascendancy, but it became threatening when it spawned other centres of political and economic power. Making America great again in the same mould as in the post-World War II era is no longer possible. Nor is the China Dream-as articulated by Xi Jinping-possible, because that is not the logical destination of the globalisation of the Chinese economy. It is a regression to a past glory which lingers in the Chinese psyche but is unattainable in a vastly different geopolitical terrain. It is only a new internationalism which enables the benefits of globalisation to be shared equitably, mitigates the negative fallout, and adjusts existing governance regimes as well as emerging ones to accommodate all stakeholders, which could bring relative peace and prosperity. Multilateral institutions and processes should no longer be the platform for a contest of competing nationalisms, but should function in a spirit of internationalism without which multilateralism is condemned to deliver least common denominator results.
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a fervent nationalist but was also a committed internationalist. His ideal was a “collectivism which neither degrades nor enslaves”. The Indian concept of Vasudev Kutumbakam, or universal brotherhood, in his view, was what was needed to meet the challenge of a post-atomic world, with its threat of universal annihilation. Nehru’s vision of India was a country at peace with itself, a democracy which guaranteed fundamental rights of the individual, which enabled its citizens to pursue their own genius and a federal polity which incorporated the ideal of unity in diversity. But, more importantly, Nehru located India’s quest as part of a global endeavour for peace and development. To quote his well-known and what today are truly prescient words:”And so we have to labour and to work, to give reality to our dreams. These dreams are for India but they are also for the world, for all the nations and people are too closely knit together today for any one of them to imagine that it can live apart. Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now and so is disaster in this One World that can no longer be split into fragments.”
One does not pretend to know how one could bridge the disconnect between the reality of the One World we inhabit today and the wave of intolerance, sectarian and racial hatred and the grossness of political discourse which is sweeping across country after country in the world. Could India lead the way to shaping a new world order which is aligned with the challenges we confront as humanity? Through the ages, India has developed a civilisation whose attributes are what that new order requires: the innate syncretism of its accommodative and self-confident culture, its easy embrace of vast diversity and plurality with an underlying spiritual and cultural unity, and a deep conviction that to achieve greatness a nation must stand for something more than itself.
We work on a much narrower agenda now, and seek to advance India’s interests without much thought to our place in a larger, interlinked and interdependent world. In the context of the ecological challenge we confront as humanity, it has been said that if we as a species fail to halt and reverse the ravaging of the earth we inhabit, then we face cataclysmic and irreversible consequences. In a world where each national leader wants to make his country great again, there may well be a future in which greatness will have become irrelevant in every sense of the word. Will India point to a different, more hopeful future?